They Hunt to Live. It Lives to Hunt.
The Comanche Nation, 1717: Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche warrior who isn’t taken seriously as a hunter because of her gender. Seeking to prove her mettle, she tags along with her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), a tribe favorite, and his friends as they set off to hunt down the lion that has mauled one of their fellows. Something else is a-hunting, too: a goddamn Predator, because this is, of course, the latest installment in the incredibly unsteady sci-fi/action/horror franchise (smartly, the film has Naru interpret the arriving spaceship as a mystical omen).
You know the drill, and perhaps familiarity dulls the impact a bit: the Predator (6’9” ex-basketballer Dane DiLiegro) is an alien bwana on safari, using an array of hand weapons, a nifty shoulder-mounted gun, and a cloaking technology that renders him almost invisible. Of course, as we’ve been saying since at least 1924, the most dangerous game is man, and across four preceding movies plus two crossovers with the Alien franchise, the Predator has killed and been killed by a variety of muscled military men, starting with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the boys in John McTiernan’s 1987 genre classic.
Here the script gets flipped in both obvious (a female protagonist, a lack of high-kill power technology for the humans) and more subtle ways. The story is tight — you could even argue light — but the texture is rich: even at a brisk 99 minutes, we spend time just sort of being around Naru and Taabe’s people, picking up their worldview, seeing how they live, what they do, their customs and culture. The verisimilitude is incredible, down to such details as a buffalo stomach being used as a cooking pot at one point (we are BMC here — Before Metal Cookware). This fidelity is the work of producer Jhane Myers, a Comanche woman who has advised other productions like Amazon Prime’s Yellowstone: 1883 (2021) and 2016’s The Magnificent Seven on Indigenous culture.
The result is a world within the film that feels fully realized. In fact, for its first act or so, Prey is a coming-of-age survival adventure with a Predator sort of prowling in the periphery and working its way up the food chain. We see the invisible hunter first kill a rattlesnake, then a wolf, then a bear — always taking predators, the monstrous hunter letting the harmless herbivores go. The implication is that this is an early or perhaps even first visit to our planet by the species, and our guy is just figuring out the ecological web with lethal intensity.
In that sense, it’s a kind of triple-stacked first contact narrative between humans and Predators, and Comanche and the French as a party of grotesque fur trappers and traders factors in as the story proceeds to throw a little black powder firepower into the mix. Director Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), and writer Patrick Aison (Prey is his first completed feature) smartly keep us aligned with Naru and the Comanche. French speech isn’t subtitled, and the callous and cruel colonials are as alien to our heroine as the Predator itself — perhaps moreso; the monstrous hunter can be more readily integrated into the Comanche worldview than a field strewn with skinned and rotting buffalo.
But while Prey has its own identity, it’s still a Predator movie, and when the time comes to commit to the bit, it pulls few punches, unleashing an impressive amount of colorful violence as the Predator deploys its collection of deadly gadgets on an array of hapless humans while Naru and Taabe try and figure out how to kill this goddamn thing. Limbs get lopped, heads get severed, some poor bastard gets diced with a razor net — you know the drill.
There’s been a bit of noise from the usual idiots about the plausibility of a teenage girl from a “primitive” culture going toe to toe with a Predator, but Prey plays fair, knowing — as has been the case with almost all Predator stories — that squaring up with one of these guys is tantamount to suicide; you need to play the angles to win. The ’87 original is explicit in this regard; Arnie didn’t triumph because of his pecs, he triumphed because he out-thought the enemy, and that’s the case here.
As played by Amber Midthunder, The Ice Road (2021), a hugely charismatic screen presence, Naru is both incredibly vulnerable and incredibly capable, and the path leading up to the inevitable final confrontation is carefully mapped out, with Naru making mistakes along the way but also gathering data, learning about her enemy, piecing together a workable strategy that’ll give her a shot at victory. It’s smart writing, arguably smarter than the original film in terms of how it strings together narrative cause and effect.
Prey succeeds on every level. It’s a great addition to the extant franchise, especially coming at a time when Predator as a concept seemed dead in the water. It’s a brilliant evocation of the past, a cracking adventure, and a visceral — in every sense! — action movie. The drive to franchise is already kicking in with talk of direct sequels or conceptually similar spin-offs — Predator vs. Samurai! Predator vs. Pirates! — which is all well and good, but this is a film that stands on its own two feet as one of the most enjoyable genre offerings of the year.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson